Alton stops his motorcycle near a small shack whose best days are long gone. Frustrated by his map and lost, he knocks on the door. Before he can explain his problem he’s dragged inside, set before a breakfast plate and served grits. The family is surprised when he claims to be a southern boy who has always loved grits. They’re suspicious when he starts describing various countries and regions where cornmeal is also a staple. The last straw is when Alton claims grits and polenta are the same dish. Out he goes followed by his map. No matter - cornmeal has three times the culinary potential of rice and pasta put together. Whatever you call it, it’s... Good Eats.
Alton reveals that after wheat, corn (or maize, as most folks call it) has the largest number of acres dedicated to it. Most of this is dent corn (named for the pits that form in the kernels as it dries). Dent corn is low in sugar and high in starch. It’s not very tasty but it mills well into cornmeal. Alton suggests avoiding cornmeal that doesn’t say “stone ground” somewhere on the package.
Cornmeal comes in coarse, medium and fine grinds. Some folks believe polenta is always made from medium ground yellow meal, while grits are always made from coarse ground white meal. But this is not a standard, and Alton shows a package with both polenta and grits written on it. The terms are generally interchangeable with one exception: hominy grits. Hominy grits are made from alkali treated corn. Alkalization changes the chemical structure of the kernel so that hominy grits never quite lose their grittiness.
Alton continues to assert that grits and polenta are the same. For this he gets a brick through his kitchen window bearing the message “U a big fat liar boy” followed by a piece of fine marble reading “Lei un grande bugiardo” (You are a big fat liar). It seems southerners and the Italians agree on one thing: they’re not eating the same food. Alton concedes there could be some differences in the liquids used, the method used, and the flavors added. But the cornmeal is the same.
Alton starts with a large amount of cornmeal and two sauciers. On the left he starts a polenta the traditional way – with a vegetable sweat. He puts a red onion and some salt into a little oil over low heat. When the onion is soft he adds garlic and a quart of chicken broth. On the right he starts grits with a quart of liquid – half water and half milk – and a pinch of salt.
On the left side, when the chicken broth has come to a boil, Alton very slowly adds a cup of cornmeal. Adding the meal slowly reduces the chance of lumps by ensuring each grain will be surrounded quickly with hot liquid. He lids that pan and puts it into the oven. The oven’s even multidirectional heat yields a custard-like texture. He stirs about every ten minutes.
On the right side the cornmeal is added the same slow way. The cooking technique here uses low direct heat for a shorter period with more frequent stirring. This results in a slightly heavier and starchier dish. When this one is cooked Alton works in some butter, salts it to taste and adds some cheese. About then the polenta is finished in the oven. It gets a little butter, some parmesan cheese, and some pepper.
Alton recruits a southern belle and an Italian man and serves each dish to each of them. Not surprisingly, each likes both dishes.
Next up Alton offers a different way to eat polenta. He spoons it into a parchment lined pan and refrigerates it for a few hours. Then he uses a biscuit cutter to cut rounds, commenting that any device that cuts shapes about the size of a biscuit will work. He fries these in oil. One could also cook them over a rocket-hot and very clean grill. They will stick unless the grill is quite clean; Alton recommends lightly oiling the grill and the rounds as insurance. He also warns not to disturb the rounds while they cook for at least two minutes, only then flipping and cooking the other side.
Cornmeal is good for more than grits. Alton enlists the aid of Colonel Bob Boatwright (Alton in disguise) to produce a dish that’s sweet, tropical, and genuinely southern – pineapple upside down corn cake. Boatwright starts by hydrating cornmeal in boiling milk. Then he melts and slightly browns some butter in an iron skillet, taking care to brush the butter up the sides. When the butter melted he adds some brown sugar and melts that. He carefully lays six slices of canned pineapple and some maraschino cherries in the pan – that melted sugar is hot. Next he tops the pineapple slices with some chopped pecans and a little of the heavy syrup from the pineapple and lets all that cool down.
While it cools Colonel Bob mixes a batter using the muffin method: mix dry ingredients, mix wet ingredients, and only then bring the two together, mixing just enough to wet the batter. Overmixing promotes agglutination and creates an unpleasantly chewy cake. The dry team is flour, baking powder, and salt. The wet team is eggs, sugar and little oil. (Yes, sugar is considered a wet ingredient – its physical properties are more like those of wet ingredients). Teams mixed, Boatwright adds the cornmeal to the wet team and then all that to the dry ingredients. Mix for a six count and just walk away. It can be a little lumpy.
Boatwright carefully pours the batter on top of the fruit mixture and gently slides this into the oven to bake. He lets it cool for a half hour before inverting the skillet onto a plate.
Alton returns to the rural shack with his own grits, assuring the family they aren’t “that high-falutin’ city food, polenta.” But it seems that the people who lived there liked the horses a bit much, and now the house is owned by some nice Italian folks... Luckily Alton recovers, convincing them that the grits ARE polenta and proving that cornmeal has international appeal. Share this article with your friends